November 23, 2010

Riding In Tanks With Men

The world looks different when you’re staring at it down the barrel of an M1A1 Abrams tank. Relative to you, the turret and barrel of the tank is a stationary, solid thing, while the landscape flows by like waves on the ocean. The tank is safe, while everything beyond is potential danger.

The ride is smooth, even over dips and ruts, but when slowing down or speeding up, the gear change kicks like a mule and you’re glad to have that heavy helmet on. Inside the turret is all metal and hard angles. The tank doesn’t roar or growl. From the outside, there is only a low hum and the clicking of the treads on their wheels. Inside is a loud, high-pitched whine and the constant rattle of metal against metal, drowned out by noise cancelling headphones attached to the helmet. Despite that, hearing loss is common among tankers. The tank exhaust is invisible, just a heat shimmer and strong blast, but the dust it kicks up can be seen for miles depending on the terrain.

The gunner’s seat is narrow, with a dizzying assortment of dials, knobs, and buttons closer to your face than most people keep their computer screens. The only way to see the world outside is with one eye either pressed to the digital scope (with range finder and night vision) or the backup optical scope. Every function has a manual backup, so if hydraulics go out, you can still adjust the attitude of the barrel with that control, or if the electronic trigger fails, you can still fire manually with this knob here.

Behind the gunner is the tank commander and to his left, the loader. Each can stand on their seats and be half out of the two top hatches, but the gunner is stuck in the metal cocoon of the turret. Somewhere forward, in the main body of the tank, is the driver, physically and visually separate, connected only by the thin thread of a helmet radio, despite being only a few feet away.

Standing on the loader’s seat, I watched the desert flow by, all dust, scrub brush, and dramatic mountain ranges in the distance. My left shoulder pressed against the mount for the M50 machine gun, now empty. To my right, LT Guerra, the tank commander stood, talking with the driver over his helmet radio and occasionally giving me a thumbs up to ask if I was okay. I was just watching the scenery, enjoying the motion of the solid tank under my boots, and crunching dust between my teeth.

But this isn’t how it would be if they were in the field. There’d be no lazy interest, no idle curiosity. Instead, they’d be scanning the landscape, constantly on watch for insurgents and improvised explosive devices. Kind of like LT Guerra was doing now, for all his relaxed shoulders and innocuous chatter with the driver. His head was still turning slow and steady and I had the impression his eyes behind those tinted glasses were sharp. My own attention suddenly sharpened and I found myself scanning the area ahead and to the left of the tank.

The lookout isn’t just responsible for their own life, maybe even hardly concerned with it at all, but his buddies in the tank crew depend on his vigilance. Maybe they’re part of a convoy, and the tankers and truckers behind them are depending on him too. That brings everything into very sharp focus, or so I could imagine. Spend a day in the field like that, or even half a day, and then try to just turn that kind of hyper-awareness off. I can’t believe it’s easy. I’m just a silly little girl who’s hardly seen a lick of danger in her life, but I am grateful if I gained even ounce of understanding from that twenty-minute joyride.

The soldiers of the 1-185th Armor Battalion of the California National Guard were good to me during my time at Fort Irwin. Delta Company let me tag along during driver training. Headquarters Company welcomed me in as a fly on the wall to their staff meetings. No one seemed to mind as I stood shadow to their chaplain candidate, learning a little bit about what a military chaplain does. They were all real happy to hear I was considering military chaplaincy. Some of them tried to talk me out of it when I mentioned Navy, but others were encouraging. There were enough old sailors in the unit with wisdom to share.

“I used to be Navy. With the Navy you get to be out doing stuff, putting your training to use,” Sergeant Scott told me. “The Army is like Nascar. It’s like you’re a mechanic and you’ve spent thousands of hours working on this car and making it fast and perfect, but then you never, ever get to drive it.”

The 1-185th has deployed overseas twice during the most recent conflicts. “When a tank shows up, the action just stops,” one soldier told me. The insurgents know they can’t tangle with an Abrams, but who knows how many they’ve wounded or killed before the tank arrives. The last time the 1-185th deployed, they left their tanks at home.

I followed Chris around as he went from company to company, from one small group of soldiers to another. “Ministry presence,” he called it, just being available to the troops if anyone should have an issue. A few times a soldier would pull him aside for a personal issue or he’d just shoot the breeze and get a feel for overall morale.

“I’ve lost four since we got back,” the Command Sergeant Major said around his cigar. He shook his head as he ticked them off on his fingers. “Two motorcycle accidents, one car crash, and one suicide.” He didn’t say it, but his tone made it the regret clear. Here they were supposed to be safe. Then he made a crusty old joke and the guys laughed.

There was a Lieutenant in Fox Company who reminded me so much of the cadets I’d worked with at the ROTC, a handsome young man with beautiful cheekbones and a square jaw, hair trimmed short. He looked like LT Wellensiek, who got himself blown up and put back together with bolts and rods. Or LT Gaspers, who died.

By the end of the first morning, my green boots were caked with the tan desert dust. In the afternoon it rained. The wind was always there and I was glad I’d brought my stocking cap and gloves. The guys kept asking me if it was too cold, or too wet, or the food was too bad, or the work too daunting, or the sleep too little. The truth is, it wasn’t that bad. It’d be hard to do everyday, but I think if I were in proper military trim, I could manage it. Though I can see why the Army runs on coffee. Saturday night I still had enough energy to sit up and write postcards to my family. The guys teased me about that, but they approved of my choice (it had a tank on it). On Sunday morning, I woke up hungry. That has literally never happened before and I took it as an encouraging sign.

I can never convey enough thanks to the soldiers of the 1-185th AR, especially to LTC Murphy for allowing me to tag along, LT Guerra for the ride, and, of course, chaplain candidate 2LT Chris Mohr for setting the whole thing up and taking such good care of me while we were out there. I highly recommend this kind of experience to everyone going into the chaplaincy field, whether they are contemplating military chaplaincy or not (and whether they get to ride in a tank or not). Watching Chris work showed me a highly fulfilling career in which the dharma is being put to immediate use for the benefit of many people.

To the men and women of the 1-185th, I can only say “Hooah!”

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